For the past nine weeks my work and creativity was suspended by the unrelenting wicked pain of shingles. By the end, I went mad from meds, lack of sleep, loss of appetite (I lost nine pounds and was feeling weak), and what chronic pain does to the nervous system and brain—all of which was made much worse by Covid-news stress and isolation (I live alone and am discovering I‘m not the Hermit I’ve claimed to be!). After five to six weeks, I spiraled too far inward and became absorbed by rumination, anxiety-depression, loneliness, and despair. I sought medical help, but their only answer was more drugs with more side effects and my deepest instinct told me this was not the answer. On my darkest day, my son Lucien came home and prepared me for a visit to a bountiful organic farm two hours north where he lives in a cabin. And in just twenty-four hours this is what happened:
Upon arriving, I was transported from sheltering-in-place to a colorful oasis of flowers, vegetation, and birds. We followed the path passing goats, geese, chickens, guided by a couple friendly dogs to the casita where I would be staying. We were welcomed by an earthy, lovely woman, Cindy who, along with her husband, brought their vision into reality. “There was not a tree on the land when we came 30 years ago. All the trees you see we planted and watered with a hose we dragged around. It’s a miracle!” Indeed, an act of love.
The first day, just the trip and short walk were exhausting; I packed my right side in ice and rested. The next morning, I began to explore the nearby paths and gardens. Did you know that “if you hold moist soil for twenty minutes, the soil bacteria begin elevating your mood. You have all the antidepressant you need in the ground.”1
On the second day, Cindy invited me for lunch. Heavy clouds and thunder rolled in and soon it began to rain. Two ducklings sitting by the pond suddenly got up and waddled toward the porch looking for Cindy. She picked them up and handed me Marshmallow. “They get cold in the rain because they don’t have many feathers yet, they like to be held to warm up,” she explained, “at night they stay in the greenhouse where it’s warm.” She showed me the delicate pattern of their new feathers and their tiny little wings. Petting the little duck’s soft down head, I felt the duckling relax against my body. Here was life, new life, vulnerable in search of touch and warmth. It was then, something shifted suddenly in me, without any thought or “processing,” the consuming-despair lifted. I even laughed at the ducklings’ antics. Later that day, I came to know another part of my son’s life as Lucien showed me the buildings, pointed out various plants and the mushrooms he is growing.
“Antidepressant microbes in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae result in the production of higher levels of serotonin, much like Prozac and similar medications. The bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion on rats, and the results were increased cognitive ability, lower stress and better concentration on tasks than a control group. Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks if the experiments with rats are any indication. So get out and play in the dirt and improve your mood and your life.” 2
I wondered how was it possible that in just 24 hours of being with animals, plants, greenery of trees and foliage… and the good-hearted, earth-people, my mind became clear. My mood remained stable after returning home and continuing “ecotherapy” on my own. Feeling empathy for the millions of people are suffering from anxiety and depression caused or aggravated by Covid-19 news, quarantine-loneliness or living in close quarters with others, loss of work and income, I did a little research:
NATURE REDUCES RUMINATION
Rumination refers to repetitive thoughts focused on negative aspects of the self; rumination precedes anxiety and depression. A 2015 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reported that walking in a park (or nature) reduced blood flow to a part of the brain that the researchers claimed was typically associated with brooding or ruminating thoughts.
“More than 50% of people now live in urban areas. By 2050 this proportion will be 70%. Urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness, but it’s not yet clear why. Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination, a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness, whereas those who went on an urban walk did not show these effects.”3
SOCIAL ISOLATION AND BROODING
“In a poll conducted in mid-July, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. This is significantly higher than the 32% reported in March. Many adults are also reporting specific negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%), due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.”4
PRESCRIPTIONS FOR PARKS & NATURE
Lucien knew what I needed: A Nature Cure. And, so does Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician in Washington, DC, who “prescribes nature.” He gets out his prescription pad and writes “prescriptions for parks” including specific instructions for which park his patient should visit, on which days, and for how long—just as though he were prescribing medication. Dr. Zarr meticulously mapped and rated 382 local parks and green spaces so he knows where to send his patients. He explains that it’s important to give specific instructions, not cliché admonitions, such as, “Exercise more! Get outside!” “If you came in to me with bacterial pneumonia,” Zarr explains, “I wouldn’t say, ‘You just go to any pharmacy, pick up any antibiotic you’d like, take it for as many days as you’d like, with or without food, and I’ll see you in a month, buddy.’”5 After reading this, I looked up parks where I live and started making appointments for my mental well-being.
LISTENING TO NATURE SOUNDS
When listening to natural sounds, MRI brain connectivity reflects an outward-directed focus of attention, a state like daydreaming, and increased parasympathetic activity; when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. There was also an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity (associated with relaxation of the body) when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds, and better performance in an external attentional monitoring task.
Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependent on the participants’ baseline state: Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds, while those who were already relaxed in the brain scanner environment showed a slight increase in stress when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds.6
Even looking at pictures of nature settings, your favorite spot, or a place you want to visit can help.7
As birth story listeners and mentors, let’s make prescriptions for nature part of our work and our lives during these trying times.